YouTube videos and TV footage, whether captured by professionals or what are now known as ‘citizen journalists’, portray what the documentarist sees, i.e. the action that is unfolding in front of them. The trend is quickening, with the growth in mobile social video, fuelled by the intensifying competition between Twitter and Facebook. There also the interesting suggestion that on the web, and arguably elsewhere, ‘the way we communicate is (has been) shifting towards visual cues’. But, without proper context, this type of reporting can be misleading. What is going on off camera might tell a different story. How the action began, what led to it, what its consequences are likely to be: these ‘extras’ are key to quality reporting. It is not simply enough for diplomatic correspondents or, for that matter, diplomats themselves, to gather the information, to record it, to send it home whether to Media HQ or to capital. Its importance, its context, and its relevance need to be highlighted.
Just as video footage can be edited to portray a certain perspective, so too can diplomatic reports. What determines the message aired, be it nationally or internationally, to a viewing audience, or to the minister and the MFA, is the judgement used by the diplomat or the correspondent. The audience the message is intended for will often determine the angle at which the message is delivered. This is where editorial style comes into play and where the symbiotic relationship between diplomats and diplomatic correspondents is most effective.
When asked to verify a story, or to speak to the home country’s policy on a particular issue in focus, the diplomat has first and foremost to ensure their primary task is fulfilled, i.e. to promote and pursue their country’s interests. This affects both the straightforward narration of facts, tailored as they are to meet the requirements of capital, and more especially the analytic part of their reports. Everything is viewed through the prism of the home country’s interests. The speed with which such comment is expected to be delivered puts increasing pressure on diplomats. ‘With information moving faster and wider, government officials are often tempted to respond precipitously to accommodate the artificial pressure of media deadlines – before reliable information has been gathered, its implications assessed, and the appropriate policy devised and agreed upon’ (Rai, no date).
While diplomats and diplomatic correspondents work in parallel, each charged with transmitting information to their respective headquarters, it is the diplomat who very often is caught on the back foot, with many politicians increasingly turning to news agencies for real-time information. US President Bush is quoted as saying: ‘I learn more from CNN than I do from the CIA’ (Friedland, 1992). Time zones and 24/7 broadcasting both contribute to the immediacy of the news available. While no one can expect a diplomat to be alert and awake and following world events around the clock, theirs is a job that requires them to be as up-to-date as possible. And as the ever prescient Andreas Sandre wrote recently, ‘Innovation – rather than technology per se – is the key element in this new equation. Innovation is becoming part of foreign policy DNA’. This is where information aggregators come into play. While their reports may lag in terms of timeliness, diplomats can redress the balance with insightful analysis of the information reported in the public realm, factoring in the relevance of what is being discussed to home country policy and host country politics. James F. Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, maintains that ‘diplomatic reporting … is useless if not readable, and harmful if not accurate’ (Dobbins, 2011).